HC Deb 30 April 2001 vol 367 cc640-1
29. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

For what reasons he has brought forward the Churchwardens Measure. [158168]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners)

Following synodical approval and the report of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the Churchwardens Measure was passed by this House on 20 March his year, was found acceptable in the other place, and received the Royal Assent on 10 April.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer. He will be aware that clause 9 of that Church Measure gives the bishops the powers to remove a churchwarden without any right of appeal. He will also be aware that it is a fundamental tenet of British law that someone is innocent until proven guilty. I have recently had a constituency case in which a headteacher was accused of sexual harassment by a young child. He went through many months of absolute torment, including seeing his picture on the front page of many newspapers and having his reputation completely ruined. Will the hon. Gentleman make representations to the Church Commissioners, and thence to the bishops, to use the power to remove only in exceptional circumstances?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I may remind the House, the Measure provides a comprehensive set of rules about the appointment of churchwardens and their tenure of office, building on previous legislation. Most of the Measure has caused no controversy and the draft provisions about which the Ecclesiastical Committee expressed concern related to the possible suspension of a churchwarden from exercising his or her duties. They were deleted by the General Synod and form no part of the Measure, which has become law.

In respect of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the Ecclesiastical Committee expressed severe concern along such lines. It is to be hoped that any innocent person who stands accused might not be covered by the Measure.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is not it a fact that that issue was debated in the Chamber, as my hon. Friend said, and that very few Members chose to take part? The Measure was agreed to without a Division although, as he rightly pointed out, that particular provision was of concern to the Ecclesiastical Committee. However, it was quite properly withdrawn by the Synod after representations were made by the Committee and after all the normal procedures had been followed during consideration of the Measure.

Mr. Bell

My hon. Friend is a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee and he played a full part in those discussions during which Members of the House, in the interests of their constituents, and of the other place expressed valid views that were considered by the Synod and accepted.